Mountains move professor and his students

Michael Useem and students in Nepal

Useem (pointing) with participants on the 2002 trek, which climbed Mt. Katchenjunga on the India-Nepal border due to unrest in Nepal

As you read this, a group of Wharton MBA students are winding up the experience of a lifetime, and Professor of Management Michael Useem is completing one more lesson in leadership using an unorthodox case study.

The experience and the case study are one and the same—the annual Wharton Leadership Ventures trek up Mt. Everest.

Each spring for the past six years, Useem—an avid mountaineer—has led 15 to 20 MBA and Executive MBA students into the Himalayas to experience what he called “decision-making where it really makes a difference.”

Useem got the idea for the Everest expedition during another of his unorthodox leadership classes. “The origin [of the Everest trip], ironically, was on the battlefield of Gettysburg,” he said.

“ When I began teaching leadership in the Wharton Executive MBA program about eight years ago, I thought I would have an out-of-classroom experience where people could have a tangible feel for leadership.

“ So I began taking about 100 students and their families for a one-day walk on America’s best-known battlefield and used examples of Robert E. Lee and others on what it means to think strategically” (Current, May 14, 1998).

“ After a few years, I began looking for an analogous circumstance in a different situation, and we launched what is now our leadership trek to Mt. Everest.”

On the Everest trip, participants study historical Everest expeditions and take turns leading the group. “We use the setting to recreate events on the mountain that are well documented, then we [debate] virtually every night over dinner and sometimes over lunch what happened when [Sir Edmund] Hillary climbed the mountain or to recount the disaster in 1996 chronicled in ‘Into Thin Air,’ one of the required books for the trek.”

While the hike does not place the group in the kind of danger the 1996 climbers faced, they nonetheless must make decisions that could affect the climbers’ life and health. “We had individuals from our group who developed significant symptoms of altitude sickness, and we had to make on-the-spot decisions about treatment,” Useem said (a doctor is part of every trek).

Or there was last year’s trip, where the participants encountered a blinding snowstorm at 12,000 feet. “We had to think hard about whether we would turn back or proceed on up,” he said. “We decided to head on up, and as it turned out, that turned out to be the right decision”—the storm was caused by a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, and when the storm broke three days later, “we had spectacular, clear views of the mountains.

“ That experience became fodder for conversation on what it means for a team to make a decision. That’s not atypical of what happens at a university or a hospital or a company where tough decisions have to be made.”

The Everest program has in turn spawned several other leadership adventures, including climbing a 19,000-foot-high volcano in Ecuador, a trip to Patagonia and the Marine Corps’ Leadership Reaction Course at Quantico, Va.

Useem said that reactions to these ventures fall into two categories. “One is wonderful to hear but less significant for long-term learning; people will often say it’s one amazing experience, whether it’s a day in Gettysburg or two weeks in the Himalayas.

“ The more significant one is [where] people say that six months or a year later, they’re at the office, they’re about to put out a directive, hire somebody or make a career switch. Sometimes the issues that emerged in our dialogues on the slopes of Everest will come into their minds.”

Originally published on May 15, 2003